Sylvia Omina Otsieno

Renewed Cultural Wisdom

Sylvia walks us through the customs of the Luhya and explains how subtle rituals like naming are important for maintaining community harmony. She talks about her upbringing in the Marachi culture and her background. She emphasizes the necessity to return to earlier ways of doing things because they were sustainable by bringing up raw materials like papyrus as examples.

She goes into great detail about the things that her culture and way of life gave her inspiration, demonstrating how old methods may still be employed in place of contemporary innovations like a refrigerator. She also imparts knowledge that her grandmother taught her and that she has used in both her personal and professional endeavors.

This is the fifth episode under the ‘Shifting Narratives’ program supported by the British Council SSA Arts.

*For the best experience, please use a headset/earphones.

IG: @ominaotsieno



Episode Transcript

[00:00:27] Adrian: Sylvia, it's really, really wonderful to have you on the show. And first of all, we have a tradition that we like to ask people whether your name has a meaning or a reason behind it?

[00:00:40] Sylvia Omina Otsieno: Oh, yes. My name has a meaning. In the Luhya setting, I'm a Luhya by the way, from the western part of Kenya. Names had a lot of significance in the family and, um, In most cases, children were named after their departed ancestors. And the naming was done either during pregnancy or immediately after birth, or just a few months or days later.

[00:01:07] So, there were various ways of leading to the naming of a child. For example, a sister who wanted to be named, would show in form of a dream to the woman who was expectant or to her husband. And likewise, the expectant mother could sometimes develop complications during pregnancy or at birth through the sages.

[00:01:33] And it'll be determined that the baby needed to be named maybe after a

particular ancestor for the pregnancy or birth to be smooth. So sometimes there could be a struggle between two ancestors, both wanting to be named. And if it was determined so that that was the case, then the sages would reconcile the competing ancestors and either both, or one of them would be named.

[00:02:02] So apart from ancestors' naming a child was also named depending on the time, season or circumstances when the baby was born. For example, a child born

during dry season will be named Simiyu for the boy or Nasimiyu for the girl, the one born during harvest, Chesa for the boy, Nekesa for the girl. So, these names would compliment, the ancestral ones.

[00:02:31] So my name Omina, I was named after my great great grandmother. And then Otsieno is my dad's name, which means he was born at night. So, those are the

meaning of my names.

[00:02:47] Adrian: Wonderful. Thank you. How did your upbringing influence your journey into a creative profession?

[00:02:56] Sylvia Omina Otsieno: My upbringing in, in my culture?

[00:02:59] Adrian: Yes, yes.

[00:03:01] Sylvia Omina Otsieno: I come from the Marachi, you know, Luhyas have 16 sub-tribes. There's the Samia, there's the Khayo, there's the Wanga, there's the Marama and so on. So, I come from the Marachi, which also has different category of clans. Clans are like Abamuchama, Abatula, Abamurono. 

[00:03:28] So I come from the Abafofoyo and um, our lineage traces from, um, the Kabaka ancestry of Uganda Kingdom which came down to the Nabongo of Wanga Kingdom. They settled in Kenya in Wanga land. So my great-grandfather moved to Marachi to settle there. And that's where, you know, in my whole lineage now from the

great grandchildren we were born, our fathers and our grandparents were born. This has influenced a lot my, you know, my creativity because I've grown around these cultures. You know, the traditions, the way of life and, yeah.

[00:04:16] Adrian: Mm-hmm.

[00:04:17] Sylvia Omina Otsieno: Growing up, I was surrounded by crafts, like my grandparents weaved baskets, they made ropes, and my mother was a crochetier. So I've grown up in this crafts so, it's something that I picked up maybe without knowing which gave back to my brand 

[00:04:38] Adrian: So, how did that happen then? How did you go from being inspired by the craft that you saw around you into creating a brand and products with it? What was that journey?

[00:04:50] Sylvia Omina Otsieno: Because of the practices of this basket weaving, you know, like basket weaving is done from papyrus reeds, which are things that we still have. Mat weaving from palm leaves, traditional seats made from twigs, rope twisting from sisal, pottery, the traditional musical instruments. These are things that we still have available and the world being, you know, at a point where the planet needs us to do something, to make change, to take care of it.

[00:05:29] I thought why not go to, you know, the olden ways of living? Because they lived in very sustainable ways, so why not go back and invent new ways of doing things. So this is how I came up with the banana fiber idea. The inspiration behind it is like the rope twisting. You can see a lot of twisting in the jewelry, the technique of the basket weaving, you know, you can also see it a lot in the, the jewelry, especially the rings. And these culture's also dying away. It means that, you know, if we don't pass them down to the younger generation, they will never know about it and they will not know some of the best ways to safeguard the planet.

[00:06:20] So that's how the idea came about, and it's the influence from my culture.

[00:06:26] And then also there are of course the, the lifestyle here means, you know,

ranging from the foods. What they used to prepare the foods. Like the pots, every kind of food had a specific pot meant for it to be prepared in it. So those kind of things, we use that also as inspiration.

[00:06:51] When I'm designing, the designs have an inspiration and those are some of the things that inspire the designs, the pots, the baskets, and the techniques also. We draw inspiration from them. For example, in the olden days there was the traditional dances and ladies would wear anklets around their ankle and dance.

[00:07:15] They would make certain sounds which would go with the rhythm of the music. And just this, these kind of things are, you know, just the, the things that we

look back and draw inspiration from. I was recently, just this past weekend, I was invited to a cultural event and it was amazing seeing all the Kenyan tribes and it reminded me so much about this past and I, I was glad that at least you know, we still have people who understand our cultures and they're practicing it.

[00:07:52] Adrian: Wonderful. You mentioned the pots there. There were different pots for different uses. Maybe you could enlighten me into some of those pots and how they were used, what the differences were.

[00:08:05] Sylvia Omina Otsieno: So like, um, gosh, I forget the names sometimes. Like Inyungu, it's still being used even today, that one was used for storing water. You know, the way we have refrigerators, you know, the modern way of keeping water cold. In the villages we have those pots and they keep water very cold.

[00:08:28] When you take that water from that pot, you think it's from the refrigerator.

And then there was another pot that we used to prepare smoked meat. This meat is prepared in such you you buy the fresh meat and then it's smoked for a couple of days until it's dry.

[00:08:49] That meat will be able to last for a long time. How it's preserved, it's put in

that pot. That port contains ashes. Ashes burnt from dry banana peels. So you dry the banana peels until you know they're... they're crunchy. And then after that they're burnt into ashes. So it's a very nice way of preserving food so that meat can be preserved even for a year in that ash in the pot.

[00:09:20] And that ash also can be used in place of soda ash to prepare food to soften

the food. It's also a traditional way of making meat and traditional vegetables like Kunde, we use that. So the pots were used to prepare these kinds of meals, the dry meat, fish, beans. There's a specific one for beans. There's one for... for making, ugali and so on.

[00:09:52] Adrian: Hmm. Thank you. And when it comes to the banana fiber, you, you mentioned before that it's about bringing together parts from our culture and finding uses for them. Is the banana fiber itself something cultural or was it just the weaving aspect that then you found the banana fiber as a material, or is, is the banana fiber, like you've mentioned, banana ash? Is banana fiber also something that's been used through generations?

[00:10:22] Sylvia Omina Otsieno: Banana fiber, I use it just as a material. It's besides the inspiration, but the way banana was used is, is how I've explained. Like the banana peels were used to make the ash. This ash, which was a way of preserving food and it's also a way of preparing food. Making it soft.

[00:10:47] And the fiber, the outer peel is also used as a storage for this ash as


[00:10:54] Adrian: Oh, okay. And how, how do you go about processing the banana stem to get the banana fiber then, and to make it usable for your purposes?

[00:11:05] Sylvia Omina Otsieno: So at the moment, the process starts right from harvesting of the stem and then, we make small strips from it. Which is boiled to treat it. So we boil the strips and then now extract the fiber. After extracting the fiber, we dry it in the sun, and then now we start weaving the jewelry.

[00:11:29] Adrian: And what kind of properties does it have? Are there any parts that are particularly challenging in the process and what type of properties does the dried ready fiber have?

[00:11:42] Sylvia Omina Otsieno: The challenge is the process. The process is very tedious and even after that long, that tedious process. One stem can only produce 0.4 grams of the fiber. That is when we are doing it manually, but I'm sure in the machine we can produce a lot. And then another challenge is you have to really, make it soft. Make sure that it's not going to fry. So you have to really, extract it properly for the purposes of jewelry. 

[00:12:17] Adrian: So it seems like it's a material that's worth utilizing. There's other similar materials that you've also looked at?

[00:12:26] Sylvia Omina Otsieno: I'm considering in the future to also go for maybe bamboo just to accessorize the fiber and also make other stuff. I'm also looking at twigs, how, you know, like in the end I would like to get into what the Marachi culture, the, the kind of stuff they were making, like the sofas, the pots, if we can, you know, invent and use the available natural, materials.

[00:12:57] Adrian: And when it comes to the banana fiber is... currently, is the supply your main stumbling block when it comes to being able to create more of these products? Or do you have enough of, because it sounds like you can't get much from, from each stem. So, is supply and issue?

[00:13:16] Sylvia Omina Otsieno: Yes, supply is an issue. And that's because we don't have the machinery. It's a long process, so doing it manually takes longer, which makes the supply very few.

[00:13:31] Adrian: Mm. Other alternatives like water hyacinth or something, or sugar cane, or are they different for your purposes?

[00:13:40] Sylvia Omina Otsieno: I haven't tried the hyacinth but it's something I could look into cause then if, if it's an alternative, then we can do a mix maybe.

[00:13:49] Adrian: Mm Great. What other products are you working on? Is there a focus that you'd like to have now? Is there a product that you've kind of nailed down that this is something that you are, you are releasing and selling? 

[00:14:04] Sylvia Omina Otsieno: I'm currently making a sample for place mats. So the plus smarts are made from, you know, it's a combo, banana fiber and recycled fabric. The jersey t-shirt fabric. So that's also another project that we are working on. And then this year, like I was researching about organic dyes.

[00:14:29] So it, it's something we are also considering so that we at least put some

color into the fiber maybe with pump and see how we can go with that, the response of people. So it's something that we are also starting this year, to make organic dyes.

[00:14:48] Adrian: That's really interesting. So, when it comes to organic dyes, what kind of ingredients and materials are you using or do you foresee yourself using?

[00:15:00] Sylvia Omina Otsieno: The ones that are so far I've seen available is turmeric, beet root, and marigold flower. So those are the ones I would like to start with and see how it goes. 

[00:15:12] Adrian: Really interesting. We've, we've recently been dyeing papier-mache things, and Naitiemu is using beet root to dye some papier-mache, and I know turmeric works really well as well. So it's one stage designing toys in India with natural, with natural dyes, and it's amazing what natural colors you can get. So it's good to work with that color palette for sure. Yeah.

[00:15:40] Sylvia Omina Otsieno: Do you mind sharing contacts? Maybe there's, you know, learning new things as well.

[00:15:46] Adrian: Yeah, sure. Sure. I'll share for sure. I know I'd really like to ask you as well in terms of the social impact. So with your work, there's a social component of it. What's the actual impact that you are making on the people you work with?

[00:16:05] Sylvia Omina Otsieno: So I grew up between, you know, the city, the village, abroad. And being in the village usually it's my favorite time and every time I go to the village, I see these women work very hard but they don't earn that much to, you know, fend for their families.

[00:16:26] And then also in terms of development, I just see the same things I've seen

many years ago. So I was inspired to, you know, if I can do something that, you know, will bring change to the community, why not? So when this banana fiber idea came about, I thought this is the right moment to, you know, work with women.

[00:16:52] So I work with them in the sense that I train them how to weave the jewelry and then, you know, they get paid.

[00:17:01] Adrian: Mm-hmm. And how do you ensure that the products, you know, that the people making the products are getting paid fairly? How do you work that out as a business person, as an entrepreneur, to make sure that you can also cover the costs and sell the products?

[00:17:19] Sylvia Omina Otsieno: At the moment, I don't have the capacity to employ them on full-time, so I only, you know give them work occasionally. They're on a part-time basis because employing them full-time would mean, you know, I have to get money. You can't keep people there without pay.

[00:17:39] And these are people who are working hard. So the alternative that, you know, I have for them at the time when they're not, working for me. Like,

[00:17:49] Adrian: mm-hmm,

[00:17:50] Sylvia Omina Otsieno: my mom connects them to... there's this culture of during farming or harvesting, people need assistance. So my mom would connect them to people who maybe are harvesting or they're planting, and then that way they help.

[00:18:07] And then get some money to keep them going.

[00:18:11] Adrian: Mm-hmm. Yeah. What plans do you have for the business, the brand, for yourself, starting with this year and then for the future?

[00:18:20] Sylvia Omina Otsieno: I have a plan of, you know, looking for grants to expand because without capital you can't move the refer. So, I'm in need of capital and that's what we are working for this year. We also working to have other alternatives, for example include selling on wholesale.

[00:18:42] For example, the placements that we are working on so that, you know, we have, a channel to get money to keep us going. Another thing is to at least have these 10 women, fully employed. And then still have more part-time workers.

[00:19:02] Adrian: And of course you mentioned as well that you need full manufacturing. You need to acquire a machine. Right. So that's part of the plans as well to help you scale.

[00:19:12] Sylvia Omina Otsieno: yes, yes.

[00:19:13] Adrian: Great. You should really check out if you haven't the make it circular challenge. We've been promoting it for a couple of months by What Design Can Do.

[00:19:23] Maybe if you've seen our socials or our website, I highly recommend that the

deadline is tomorrow but you should still be able to get something in. Sounds like your projects would be really perfect for the challenge. And it's a 10,000 euro main prize with an accelerator and so on. So, it could be really good for you.

[00:19:43] Sylvia Omina Otsieno: Okay, I will immediately after this.

[00:19:46] Adrian: Yes. Yes. I highly recommend it. It's a really, really nice opportunity. So have you got other things you'd like to share as well?

[00:19:56] Sylvia Omina Otsieno: I'd like to share about my best stories. My memorable stories usually are, you know, those when I lived with my grandparents, especially my paternal grandmother. They have been a big part of my success in, you know, building my brand. So my, my grandmother was... she was a very strict woman and she would communicate, using sayings.

[00:20:24] They had different meanings which is something that I look at today and I'm

like, that woman knew what she was doing. For example, there was this time she warned us not to, you know, play. She has this grass thatched kitchen and usually there are spiders there. So she warned us not to play there. As you know, stubborn children, we went ahead and, you know, disobeyed her.

[00:20:50] One minute and I was already crying because a spider had landed on my hand. So she just came out and looked at me, you know, not helping me at all, and she

was like, she said...

[00:21:07] It's equivalent to english, you know, experience is the best teacher, meaning

she warned us, but we didn't listen. So it took us to have that experience to learn that what she's saying is really true. And many other sayings that, you know, I look at right now and they helped me, you know, go about my life in a modest way.

[00:21:33] Adrian: It's amazing how much of an impact our grandparents can have on us. I also consider myself very lucky to have had really supporting grandparents, so I can, I can really empathize with that. Have you got any other wise words that she's taught you in life?

[00:21:52] Sylvia Omina Otsieno: Yes, I have them. I have them written somewhere.

[00:21:56] Adrian: We should write them down. Right. That's, that's what I try to do these days. Share the knowledge. So have you got any, any other stories you'd like to share or perhaps other questions or things maybe you'd like to know from people?

[00:22:11] Sylvia Omina Otsieno: I'd like to, you know, I need help to grow this business. So, for example, the organic dye thing that we are starting, I think I will need help with that. And as you said, you know, about the program that you are having for grant. If you can share more details, you said more details on the social media.

[00:22:35] Adrian: yes. On our social media and on our website as well,

[00:22:41] Sylvia Omina Otsieno: Okay.

[00:22:41] Adrian: Yeah, and I'd be very interested as well to see where your research goes into natural dyes and even natural adhesives really required everywhere when we make stuff, but it's very often that we use synthetic adhesives like epoxies and so on, so it would be great to learn more about other gums or things like that.

[00:23:05] Definitely as well for fabric dyes. If people know from around the world what

kind of natural fabric dyes are available, then please let us know and please let Sylvia know as well. Yep.

[00:23:19] Sylvia Omina Otsieno: Another thing is, you

know, my background is in clothing. Yeah. So I'd like to go back to clothing as

well. But this time in a more sustainable way, maybe also looking at, you know,

things like hand weaving on fabrics. So it's also something that, you know, in

the future we are looking at.

[00:23:43] Adrian: Mm, brilliant. We're we're talking to some people about looms. Yeah, I know there's a lot of talk going on about looms and weaving, so that's very exciting for us as well. So where Sylvia, where should people find you? How can they contact you?

[00:24:01] Sylvia Omina Otsieno: On all our socials, it's Omina Otsieno. So that's how they can contact us.

[00:24:09] I'd wrap up by saying let's embrace our culture because in it we have so much to, you know, it has so much to offer to safeguarding our planet. So let's go

back to our homes and, you know, learn our cultures, do whatever we can to keep in touch with them.

[00:24:28] Adrian: On that note then, are there any particular maybe making methods, things that are really traditional to Luhya culture, apart from the weaving?

[00:24:39] Sylvia Omina Otsieno: Of course the food, as I mentioned there's some foods just special for Luhyas made by Luhyas. For example, there's a food called Mushenye. It's a, a mixture of sweet potatoes and beans. And if, if you've heard Mukimo, Mukimo is from the Kambas. Mukimo is prepared by Irish potatoes and peas.

[00:25:02] So it's the version of Mukimo. But for us, we use sweet potatoes and beans.

It's very sweet. And then there's also the smoked meat. It's called Muranda. We call it Muranda, but there's some Luhyas who call it Shiango depending on which Luhya sub-tribe. Some of them have the same name and some have the different name for it. So we call it Muranda, which is smoked for some days, maybe two or more days, and then it's dry. So this can even go for a year if you store it in the ash.

[00:25:39] Adrian: Wow. Okay. That's really interesting. I think I'm, I'm sure I've tried Mushenye. It looks, looks familiar.

[00:25:46] Sylvia Omina Otsieno: Oh, you have?

[00:25:48] Adrian: sounds delicious. I think so. At some stage, I feel like I have, yes. In a Luhya household. So, Yeah.

[00:25:56] Sylvia Omina Otsieno: You should. So I, I found my grandmother's poetic analogy sayings here. Do you like me to go through some of them?

[00:26:06] Adrian: Yes, please. Yes, please.

[00:26:08] Sylvia Omina Otsieno: So there's one that says...

[00:26:10] So it means if you lay a trap for an animal or bird that you intend to catch

while it's observing, then it'll definitely escape. 

[00:26:24] There's another one that says...

[00:26:26] this means, a child who has been exposed to the world is wiser unlike the

mother who has not had the same exposure to the outside life. 

[00:26:41] Here's another one...

[00:26:43] referred to an individual with an urge to test or try to do everything delicious that he or she came, across even when she knew it was beyond their ability to get to eat.

[00:27:00] And then maybe a last one here...

[00:27:03] this means that one who doesn't listen to advice carried the filth to the

visit, while they were visiting their in-laws. In other words, you should be a good listener to when you are being advised. And that will be all.

[00:27:21] Adrian: That's amazing. That's some real knowledge to pass down and that's why we do this as well. It's great to hear those stories and those lessons from life that cross generations, and we need to keep passing them on. That's why it's great we get to have a podcast recording where we get to re record this so that orally spread knowledge can keep spreading. Your grandmother's knowledge can be passed on. Now it's recorded.

[00:27:51] Is there any wise words that you would like to pass on from yourself then,

apart from those ones from your grandmother, but from yourself to others who are maybe getting into the creative industries, who are looking for what they could do with themselves. Any wise words for life?

[00:28:12] Sylvia Omina Otsieno: I'll use one of my grandmothers saying, the one for advice...

[00:28:21] it's important to listen to, you know, advice because you never know it's

coming from someone who is experienced. And when they're advising you they know

why they're giving you that advice. So, let's listen, let's have a culture of being good listeners.

[00:28:40] Adrian: Absolutely. That's why I enjoy doing this, listening to people and learning from people, and I wonder if, if you ever have words of advice for me, I will welcome them. And yes, thank you.

[00:28:55] Sylvia Omina Otsieno: Thank you so much.

[00:28:56] Thank you so much for having me.

[00:28:59] Adrian: Thank you, Sylvia. Thank you.

Episode Credits

Produced by Nairobi Design

Host: Adrian Jankowiak

Producer: David King'ori

Shorts & Artwork: David King'ori

Music: Ngalah Oreyo (@ngalah_oreyo) and Mercy Barno (@merc.b_)

Got a question or suggestion?

Leave a comment and let us know.

Subscribe on your favourite app

Search for 'Afrika Design' and leave a review!